• Public Christians in a post-Christian society?

    Posted by John

    21 March, 2014

    The Micah challenge team has spent the last few days at the Rethinking: Public Faith Conference in Sydney. Our teacher, guide and conversation partner over these days has been Yale Professor Miroslav Volf, who many saw on the Q&A program on Monday night.

    The central concept of the conference has been rethinking the way we engage with society, as opposed to what we say when we do engage. It’s an important topic. We have looked at the church’s complicity and/or lack of response on a variety of issues including child sexual abuse and our response to refugees. We have much to rethink!

    What do you think? What are your impressions of the way that Christians are engaging in the public space?

    The Conference has been food for thought personally. It has caused me to begin the process of rethinking, or engaging in fresh thinking, about the nature of our engagement around the three issues Micah Challenge is currently campaigning about.

    For example, as we enter into a heightened period of campaigning about transparency and tax dodging, I am reminded that we must look at our own ethics around tax. Our campaigning will open us to scrutiny about our own tax arrangements as Christians. I fundamentally believe that this is something we should welcome rather than shy away from. The perspective of the government is that the good the non-profit sector does in society far outweighs the cost (in both economic and social terms) of the tax concessions it receives – so these tax concessions are a good thing for society. While I firmly believe this is true, we in the church should see this as a privilege and a responsibility, rather than a right.

    But that is an aside. My main goal in this blog is to introduce you to Volf’s guiding question over the 3 days; Can religious exclusivists be political pluralists? That is to say, can people who believe that their perspective on faith is true (and who believe in turn that following that faith is the best way of life), also be fully committed to a political vision of pluralism, where all people have equal access to promote their claims of truth?

    Volf believes firmly that this is possible.  

    By contrast, many in society and in the church assume that this is not possible. The fear is that promoting engagement in politics from people and communities of faith will necessarily lead to violence, particularly in contexts where there are multiple faiths.

    While I personally find his vision compelling, I also have questions as to whether it is possible, or at least how it works in principle. Certainly all people in a pluralistic society should have opportunity to engage in the dialogue, present their point of view, and seek to persuade others as to the value of their particular position. I think that giving people this dignity and opportunity reflects the fundamental freedom that Christ gives to people to make a choice regarding where they place their allegiance.

    Yet at some point we need to make a decision about how we order our lives together. And the people who engage in the debates (this is certainly the case for Micah Challenge) are seeking to influence the debates toward a desired outcome. To put it bluntly, all the sides of the debate are trying to ‘win’ these debates. And if we are excellent at convincing others that the way of Jesus is the best way, then we will end up with a situation where Christianity has some level of political precedence, even if this is not what we are seeking.

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with this seeking to influence and even to ‘win’ the debates. However, the problem with our notion of ‘winning’ is that it necessitates someone else ‘losing’. Our God doesn’t desire for anyone to ‘lose’ but rather that all humans should flourish. So this leads us to consider two very important things about the way that we engage in politics and public life:

    1. What outcomes do we seek when we engage? Are the reasons why we want to influence the debates consistent with the faith we profess? Are we truly seeking the best for others by showing them how God’s intention for creation is also the best for our community? Or are we driven by fear and a desire to impose our ways on everyone else?
    2. What is the tone of our engagement? How are we perceived by others? Does the way we respect and listen to others reflect the humility of Jesus as he engaged in public life?

    These are big questions, and too big to make any attempt to answer in this short blog. However, contrary to our siloed view, the world as a whole is becoming more religious, not more secular. So these questions will become increasingly important. I simply want to do what Volf did for us – help to stimulate the conversation.

    So I would be interested to hear your thoughts. Do you think it is possible for multiple faiths to live together peacefully without giving up their claims to exclusive truth? Did you see Volf on Q&A, and did you think he was effective in bearing witness to Jesus?